The modern search for things that are natural as regular food, manifests in many new products with manifold claims. Commercial interests and absence of irrefutable scientific evidence to support health claims have contributed to the decline and demise of many such products on the market shelves. The so-called Nutraceutical Industry is founded on the premises that many food ingredients and biotechnology products have health boosting and protective roles in preventing or ameliorating many disease conditions. With liberal use of GRAS list of food adjuncts and citing traditional practices of yester years in old civilizations like that in India and China, many new edible products were launched with scant scientific evidence on their long term effects on human beings. While botanical drug route is relatively easy to get clearance for many products, such an approach does not confirm the health values of many of the products emerging through this strategy.
Sugarcane juice is often touted as a natural product having several health related advantages. Chewing of sugar cane is practiced in many places, especially in rural areas and street corner cane juice vendor is conspicuous by his presence in urban areas. Sugar cane juice is even aseptically packed in tetra brick format available in some countries. It is no doubt a natural product that can be refreshing if taken fresh without heat processing. The tendency to develop brown color on exposure to heat imparts a jaggery like flavor not desirable from the consumer angle. The street vendor modifies the juice by incorporating extracts from ginger and lemon both having some beneficial effect in the GI tract. Presence of phytochemicals like chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, p-hydroxy cinnamic acid, kaempferol etc in small concentrations in cane juice gives it a powerful antioxidant activity and hence its health attributes. Of course when the fresh juice is processed through filtration and other cleaning steps combined with use of preservatives like benzoate, the health claims might not stand any critical scrutiny. Cane juice, however cannot claim the distinction of being nature's own juice as human intervention is necessary to squeeze the cane to yield juice. That honor goes to tender coconut water.
Coconut water, also called in some parts of the world as juice, is another natural product which is gaining attention for its many supposed health benefits. During the last few years consumption of this product has increased significantly all over India with millions of nuts being shipped from the South for marketing in many Northern metropolitan areas. Dedicated coconut groves are being raised exclusively for harvesting tender nuts which can stay well for a week if not dehusked. It is puzzling as to the reasons for the tender coconut to fetch prices 20-30% higher than the mature nut which has many culinary uses. Probably several claims of health attributes for tender coconut water may be responsible for its ever increasing popularity. Such claims include reducing intestinal disturbances, doubling as oral re-hydration medium, containing many organic compounds possessing growth promoting properties, keeping the body cool, maintaining skin health, killing intestinal parasites, controlling urinary infections, acting as a diuretic, reducing cholesterol, dissolving kidney and urethral stones, substituting for blood plasma, finding use as an intravenous infusion, aiding quick adsorption of drugs from the intestine and eliminating mineral poisoning from the body.
On an average a coconut takes 12-14 months to mature but in 6-7 months' time tender coconuts can be harvested, each nut providing about 200 ml of water. While Indian coconut water is considered some what saltish in taste, Brazilian nuts offer sweeter and fleshy water. The levels of reducing sugars and total solids decreases from 4.4% and 6.5% in tender coconut water to 0.2% and 5.4 % respectively in mature coconut water. High levels of Calcium and Potassium in coconut water are responsible for some of the health claims but presence of kinetin growth factors, cytokinins, some biologically active enzymes, nucleotides, active peptides and several other growth factors might be cumulatively conferring on this product some of the USPs attributed to it.
Recent reports of commercial marketing of tender coconut water in a ready to use natural form in Bangalore IT corridors by some enterprising entrepreneurs confirm the potential for this product to establish as a truly natural health drink untampered by man presented to the consumer in its original container. It was in South Asia that trimmed coconuts were marketed in early nineties and the browning resulting from trimming was checked by appropriate treatment giving an attractively white trimmed surface, ready to be consumed by gentle piercing with the straw. Its appearance in India is a welcome development as this country is world's largest coconut producer with an annual production of 16 billion nuts. The Bangalore entrepreneur claims to be marketing about 1500 to 2000 nuts a day and specialized equipment is used to trim the freshly harvested nuts before pasting the label. The need of the hour is more such entrepreneurial initiatives through out the country to spread the goodness of this natural product which is at least safe from adulteration. There are practical and logistical problems posing great challenges to the industry to establish a sustainable production regime. These include uncertainties associated with maturity determination, non-uniform quality of the water, transportation from the growing area, trimming infrastructure, distribution, disposal of residual shells and limited shelf life.
With coconut meat consumption limited to Kerala and neighboring southern states, increasing cultivation of coconuts will pose a problem for the growers in getting remunerative returns. Coconut Development Board's efforts to popularize coconut water will go a long way to provide the much needed relief to coconut growers. The Bangalore model will offer hopes for many entrepreneurs to exploit these natural resources for creating viable industries in the coastal areas of the country.